Wednesday, January 14, 2015

So this is what a good class discussion looks like!

This is my 5th year to teach Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and as I mentioned in a previous post, I've always been somewhat disappointed with the lack of engagement.  This time, something finally clicked into place.

My 1st period English class tends to be somewhat quiet and reserved, perhaps due to the combination of personalities making up the class personality, and perhaps due to the fact that I see them first thing in the morning and more than a few students are not quite firing on all cylinders at 8:30 am.

One pitfall from teaching this same unit in my Humanities class before Christmas vacation was that I was way too involved in the discussion.  I interrupted too often, asked too many of my own questions, and as a result, the students I'd selected to be each day's discussion leaders were never fully in control of the discussion.  Though my intentions had been good--wanting to make sure students considered points I worried they would miss--I had ultimately stood in the way of the discussion really coming to life.  This time, I resolved to step back and only speak up if invited, or if my instincts told me that my commenting would spur and not kill further discussion.  I trusted that my students would make it through, but knowing my English class, I suspected that the students would enjoy the experience about as much as a root canal.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

The students took the discussion and made it their own, openly wrestling with the concepts of agency and victimhood.  Everyone was engaged, sitting alert, books open, reacting to the speaker.  Most students even spoke up at one time or another!  Each day's leaders have done a splendid job of initiating and moderating the discussion, offering their own insights to get things going, drawing out quiet students, asking for reactions and questions.

Several students had their computers out, intently jotting down notes and quotes in their double-entry journals for Incidents.

Here are just a few of the quotes and ideas that have come up (and that I have thought to write down):

"The chapter about the three slaveholders reminded me of Hotel Rwanda... it seems shocking, but every human is capable of this cruelty."

"Linda chose to get pregnant because her situation forced her. She sacrificed her purity to maintain her dignity."

"Linda getting pregnant was not really agency, because she thought it was her only option. Can we really say that the only two options were being raped by Dr. Flint and getting pregnant with somebody else?"

"It's hard to pinpoint what's agency and what's victimhood in desperate situations. How you take control of the situation is what makes a difference."

"All of chapter 10, she knows that her audiences' understanding of what she did (getting pregnant outside of marriage) depends on how well she explains her situation."

"She expands her audience by pointing out that slavery is not only horrible for black people, but also the white people who own the slaves."

"Your atmosphere really can affect who you are and what you will become. Being in the situation of slavery changes who you are and what you are."

"There are so many ironic things in the book, so many paradoxes. Slave kids and master children play together as kids but when they grow up, the masters treat them like animals."

-"What Linda is doing reminds me of Elie Wiesel in Night: He experienced hardships and through that, he was able to stand up for what he believed in so that future generations would not experience that again."

"I think even agents experience moments of victimhood; it's impossible for humans to be perfect agents."

"She said that it was the last time she would share a bed with her grandmother... it's interesting how she puts suspense in her own autobiography!"

"No one wins in slavery."

Furthermore, many comments or questions began with such specific cues as...
"In Chapter 16..."
"On page 73..."
"When Linda was sick, she said..."

These were the notes I thought to take--mostly I have been sitting, watching, listening, all the while grinning from ear to ear.

In each discussion, I'd think of comments and questions that I would ask once the discussion was over.  Each day, my list has gone from five or six things to one thing, and today, nothing.  The students were that thorough.  They have surprised even themselves!

We are now five discussions in, not quite halfway done.  I'm excited to listen and learn, and think through exactly what ingredients conspired to make this discussion so good so I can set my students up for success next year, too.

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